The Slatest

John Kelly, Who Doesn’t Think Undocumented Immigrants Can Be American, Should Visit New York City

Rays of sunshine shine on the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor from behind a cloud in the late afternoon.
New York City on April 28. Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

White House chief of staff John Kelly made some ignorant comments to NPR this week about the alleged unassimilability of contemporary immigrants:

The vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re not MS-13. Some of them are not. But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people in the countries they come from – fourth, fifth, sixth grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English, obviously that’s a big thing. They don’t speak English. They don’t integrate well.

Kelly was speaking about undocumented immigrants specifically but is also reportedly part of a hardline White House faction that supports restrictions on legal immigration from so-called “shithole” countries as well.

Some observers have pointed out that Kelly’s comments are the sort of thing that has been said about one generation of immigrants by the previous generation of immigrants for literally all of American history; you can click here to read Benjamin Franklin’s complaints about Pennsylvania getting too German. Others have observed that John Francis Kelly himself is almost certainly blessed to be a U.S. citizen in part because the country admitted low-education “rural people” from Ireland generations ago. (Politico has previously reported that Kelly’s maternal grandfather, an Italian immigrant, worked at a fruit cart and never learned to speak English.) What I’d like to discuss, though, is the evidence of his misguidedness that would be staring Kelly in the face right now if he knew where to look for it.

New York City, where I live, is home to 3 million people who were born abroad, many of whom were or are undocumented. In New York, a so-called “sanctuary city,” it would be difficult to get through a week without interacting at least briefly with individuals who are one or zero generations removed from living in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe. But contra right-wing fears about foreigner-run “no-go zones,” developing-world immigrant invasions, and the death of “Western” culture, New York’s daily life and culture are obviously and distinctly American. There are traffic-jammed highways and movie theaters showing Hollywood blockbusters; people speak English in public places, eat pizza, and wear mass-produced brand-name apparel. Parks are occupied by groups engaged in such USA #1 pastimes as playing softball, cooking out, exercising compulsively, and shooting illegal fireworks. The city is welcoming to cultural influences that flow from America’s interior spaces outward: It’s a good place to eat Texas-style barbecue, listen to country music, and watch Big Ten football games. Madison Square Garden is the Mecca of basketball for kids growing up in Kansas and Indiana, and is the venue where our nation’s former high-school stoners gather every New Year’s for Phish concerts. The city is the birthplace of the nation’s most distinguished burger chain. Immigrant culture clearly doesn’t crowd out what conservatives might think of as “home-grown” Americanness.

The culture New York’s immigrants create, of course, also becomes American. I am as tired as the next person of talking about Hamilton, which I’d like to be clear I have never seen and do not vouch for as a work of art or political theory per se. But it seems germane to the question of whether contemporary immigrants can “assimilate” to note that on a purely commercial level, the inescapable musical—written by someone who grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Manhattan as a tribute to an art form created in part by a Jamaican immigrant from the Bronx—appeals to the “heartland” as much as the coasts. Families come from across the country to see it on Broadway; a traveling production just played to rave reviews in Salt Lake City; Mike Pence once wanted a ticket. On another front, the pathway by which food created here by immigrants (or their children) becomes ubiquitously American has a history that ranges from hot dogs to sesame noodles to Benihana, and today restaurants like Momofuku often expand out of New York by opening outposts in Las Vegas, the beating commercial center of the heartland American id.

New York also simply works in many big-picture ways that the wider country doesn’t always seem to. It’s the safest major city in the U.S., as well as by some measures the country’s most prosperous. Unemployment here is historically low, as is crime, despite predictions that mayor Bill de Blasio’s ban on warrantless stop-and-frisk police searches would create a wave of violence. Many of New York City’s problems, in fact, are derived from the fact that so much about it works well—there are more people from both the U.S. and abroad who want to live here than there are places for them to live, creating an impossibly high cost of living and taxing public resources like the subway. There are, absolutely, political and racial and economic problems in New York: Housing is segregated, educational opportunity is unequally distributed, wealth inequality is bad and growing, and too many people abuse 911 by calling the cops because the simple presence of nonwhite individuals makes them uncomfortable. But the city has managed to maintain a political system in which almost all public figures and voters seek to address those problems through democracy rather than resorting to racial hostility, incitements to violence, reactionary intransigence, or the legal suppression of others’ rights. It is, on a daily basis, proof that ethnic diversity, legal liberalism, cultural cosmopolitanism, public safety, and economic growth are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Why doesn’t John Kelly think about New York’s 3 million immigrants—or those immigrants in such other appealing and diverse American population centers as Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, and Washington, D.C.—when he thinks about successful “assimilation” into American culture? Probably because of the self-justifying right-wing premise that “America” means “a low-density area of working-class white people,” a concept that has a rich history, from Barry Goldwater’s wish that the U.S. could “saw off the Eastern seaboard and let it float out to sea,” to Richard Nixon’s complaints about the “Jews and Catholics and blacks and Puerto Ricans” in “goddamn New York City,” to a McCain ‘08 aide defining “real Virginia” as the area furthest away from D.C., to Goldman Sachs spouse and loan beneficiary Ted Cruz pretending to deplore “New York values.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. It would be impossible to spend any extended time in immigrant-enriched New York and make the case that the city is anything but unmistakably American—or that its cultural and political openness harms its residents in any way. John Kelly, please come visit!